INTERVIEW: Faith and doubt down under with the cast of Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon hardly needs an introduction. You know the deal: created by South Park’s Matt Parker and Trey Stone, along with Robert Lopez, it tells the story of two young Mormons who travel to Uganda on a mission. It also happens to be one of the most successful musicals in the world right now, having spawned multiple productions (in multiple languages) around the world and won awards from the Tonys to Australia’s own Helpmann’s. And now, for the first time, the Book of Mormon is coming to Perth.
Ahead of the show’s opening night in September, we sat down with Blake Bowden and Nyk Bielak, who play the lead roles of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham.
So, how did you guys feel stepping into these roles that have been filled by so many other actors now across all the different productions?
Blake: I mean, it's always a bit of nervousness, particularly in something that is so iconic as this, you know; particularly those original two, Andrew [Rannells] and Josh [Gad]. There definitely is a nervousness and an expectation that you put on yourself to be able to step up and enter them. But the team is so amazing, that surround us, that kind of support us to find our own version of these characters and to make them fit to us, basically.
So, there's definitely that initial apprehension, but that's quickly dissipated when you find the role for yourself.
Nyk: And it really quickly becomes you, you know. It does. You sort of just go ‘Fuck it. It's rock and roll. I’m just gonna do it.’
Faith and doubt are big themes in the show. How have those impacted each of your careers so far?
Blake: Doubt is an interesting one, I think. I mean, we were chatting about this last night.
Nyk: I mean, that's …faith and doubt, I mean, any life any actor, you know? It's constantly up and down.
Blake: Yeah, we, we were talking about this last night and saying how, as an artist, you always have doubt. There's always a part of you that is questioning every choice that you make. But then there's also another part of yourself, which is the faith part, which is - you have to have a certain amount of guts and a certain amount of confidence to stand on stage in front of two and a half thousand people every night and sing.
Nyk: And be like, ‘Listen to this.’
Blake: And, ‘Listen to me. Watch me.’
Nyk: But it's that constant equilibrium. You know, you need to feel a little bit nervous, have a little bit of doubt and have the same confidence at the same time.
Blake: Yeah. The doubt helps you to continually discover and the faith - that kind of belief in yourself - allows you to just get out there and do it.
Nyk: It's actually really interesting, because, I think, like, both the macro and the micro - from just, ‘Am I going to be able to sing this note?’ to the larger scale of, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ *Laughs* Yeah, so that - absolutely. I mean, it's the actor's life right there.
Is it something you find during the shows? That you’re going through that thought process where you suddenly become aware of what you're doing? And there's all these people and you're like, ‘Oh. Wait a minute.’
Blake: Yeah, sometimes. I mean, I've had moments of, you know, you'll be doing this show and you're doing it for so long and there's some nights you catch yourself. And then you think ‘…What is the next line?’ You know, ‘What is the next lyric?’ because your brain is…
Nyk: I usually find it if someone will laugh at something that's a little different or do something that pulls you up for a second and you go, ‘Oh, that was funny.’ Or, like, ‘I gotta remember that.’ And then all of a sudden, you're like…
Blake: ‘What's the next bit?’
Nyk: Yeah, ‘Oh shit.’ Or, I'll be just listening to Blake sing and be like, ‘Fuck, he’s good…’ and then… now, I have something to say, you know?
So based on your Twitter, Nyk, you seem to be someone who enjoys a meme but also a cheeky bit of political discourse. What kind of role do you guys see humour playing in serious conversations about things like religion?
Nyk: Well, I mean, this show is a perfect example of that, right? I mean, you have two of the best satirists of our generation, arguably, putting out a musical about a certain religion. If anyone's going to dance on that tightrope, it's going to be them.
Blake: It starts conversations, and I think they're important conversations to have. And this show, yes, it is incredibly funny and it can be crass, but it also kind of shines a light on some pretty dark things that are happening in the world. And things that should be spoken about, but that we don't speak about.
Nyk: Yeah. And it's funny, those people who just see the sort of facade of the language; of it being crass or rude, and don’t see the deeper story behind everything, you know? And I think that the story, especially today, is so relevant. We were talking earlier about how, you know, we have these two incredibly naive boys who are so ill equipped to go out, and they start preaching about their faith to these people who have real world problems, right? And, like, how American is that? You know? Just to be like, ‘I have all the answers.’
Blake: But not actually dealing with the problems that are actually in front of you.
Nyk: Yeah, yeah. And it's just, like… that kind of extreme narcissism that we're seeing. Yeah, I don't know. I just think it's completely relevant. And, you know, it's just very layered. You keep pulling things back and you're like, ‘Wow. Oh, wow.’ You've sort of seeing that mirror of society. And this show, the longer I’m in it, you know, you start pulling stuff apart.
You were saying about some of the darker things the show confronts. Is there a particular issue within the show that stood out to each of you?
Blake: It's hard without giving anything away in the show. And I think the beauty of this show is for people not to know as much as they can about the show. I think that, you know, by me talking about some of that stuff, I think I may ruin some of the beauty of the comedy of the show by saying it.
Nyk: Actually, one thing that I can say is - maybe not so much the darker part - I think one of the beautiful things about this show and about this story, especially in terms of talking about, you know, religion, and tackling it, is that the show is not anti-religion, or pro-religion. It just kind of says, like, ‘Calm down, everyone.’ And, like, let's focus on things we can control. Being kind to one another. Being nice to your neighbour.
Blake: Supporting your neighbour.
Nyk: Yeah. Friendship. Coming together as a community. These are all themes that, at the end of the show, you sit back and go, ‘Oh, fuck. Wow. Okay, cool.’ And to see people out there in the audience at the end of the show, after going on this long ride of watching them laugh so hard it hurts - and I mean all ages from teenagers all the way up to Nana, both hands over their hearts, being like, ‘Oh, I wasn't expecting that!’ - is such a rewarding moment for us as actors to tell the story.
I mean, this is probably one you guys have had, but have either of you had any interactions with actual Mormons since joining the show?
Blake: I personally haven't.
Nyk: I've had, like, not necessarily people who are still in the church. But I've definitely had Jack Mormons come up to me and sort of say either ‘I need another viewing of that.’ Or - I've actually had, when I was doing the show in New York, someone come up to me and be like, ‘I was a Mormon missionary and I went on my mission with a kid who was exactly you and went to Uganda.’
Nyk: Yeah. And, basically, he was like, ‘I'm no longer with the Church anymore.’ But, I don't know, that was kind of interesting.
Blake: I see them everywhere. It's like that thing, you know, when you’re looking for a new car and then you can’t stop but see that that make of car, or whatever. That's how I feel.
Nyk: It’s always been a lucky day. Anytime I see any Mormons on a mission.
So, Blake, you've been commended as being one of the first Australians to take on a lead role in a show of this kind of magnitude. What do you feel is the perception of Australia on the global cultural scene?
Blake: I think it's incredibly high. I mean, you just need to look at the success of our artists in Hollywood. I mean, there are so many incredible A-list Australian actors making it in Hollywood. But also our creatives. You know, we have writers who have musicals - brand new musicals up on Broadway. You know, you have Tim Minchin, Eddie Perfect with Beetlejuice at the moment being nominated for Tonys, winning Tonys. So I think Australia has always stood its ground when it comes to the arts. And for me, personally, I’ve spent my life in the theatre, in particular musical theatre - I think that we're among the best in the world, you know. And we constantly have exports out. You know, the Australian boy who originated Aladdin here ended up in the production on Broadway. It's constantly happening; there's that exchange happening all the time. But, look, it's also incredibly tough to be the first Australian to play this role, particularly. It’s….I think we do all right, don’t we Nyk?
Nyk: I think we do.
Just one last one: when you guys look back in, say, 20 or 30 years, what do you think will be the biggest lesson that you've learned from being in this show?
Blake: Oh, that’s a great question. I don't think… there aren't many roles like these two that demand so much of you as an actor, in terms of the scope of what you have to play from the real drama of the piece to the comedy, you know - some of it is very slapstick - that the songs that we sing stretch both of us vocally in terms of range and power. And physically, these roles are massive, like, they really do demand so much of our time and energy to play. And so, I think, you know, in 20, 30 years, looking back, I will be grateful that I had the opportunity to work as hard as I work right now to create these roles, but also how rewarding that work is and how it's rewarded every day by the audience reaction. And, you know, by the applause that we receive and the laughter that we receive. I don't think they'll be anything like this ever again in my career.
Nyk: Yeah, it's kind of amazing to be, like, in a moment of your life that you know is completely extraordinary. And so - because I already know, I mean, I've been with the show for six years now. But I think even then, I knew at the time when I first started, like, holy shit, this is a giant moment in my life. And so, to be – because, usually, I think those moments that we have in our lives that, when we look back at them, are like, ‘Oh, that was the best part of my life.’ Or, like, ‘This was a really profound moment for me.’ - but to be in it and to know that you're in it is kind of really crazy. So, I think 20 to 30 years from now, I'll probably still be thinking that you know. Well, I don't know where I'm going to be or what I'm going to be doing, but this will always be an incredibly special time. For sure.